World Autism Awareness Day: 4 misconceptions about autism

Autism is a neurological disorder marked by abnormalities in the brain. File / Getty Images

April 2 marks World Autism Awareness Day. The United Nations created the annual awareness day in 2007 – autism spectrum disorder is one of only three health issues recognized by the international body with its own day.

Doctors are still learning more about the disorder, what causes it and how to treat it. While Canadians are familiar with ASD, it has its fair share of misconceptions.

Here are five common myths about autism.

Misconception: Autism is a rarity

One in 68 children fall under the autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. federal agency says that’s a 30 per cent jump from its last estimate of 1 in 88 children – the latest calculations mean autism is more than twice as common as officials said it was years ago.

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It’s hard to decipher why cases are on the rise but experts say that it could be because of a raised awareness and doctors who can identify cases better now, especially in children with mild problems.

READ MORE: U.S. autism estimate increases to 1 in 68 children

There are no blood or biological tests for autism. It’s diagnosed by making judgments about a child’s behaviour.

The CDC says that autism affects 1.2 million U.S. children and teens. U.K. health officials say one in every 100 people is living with autism.

Health Canada points to global statistics – “an average prevalence” of about one per cent – but it’s working on a national surveillance system for autism. The first collection of data is expected in 2015 with initial findings to be made available by 2016.

Autism affects one out of 42 boys and one in 189 girls, according to estimates.

Misconception: People living with autism deal with the same symptoms

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a group of complex disorders of brain development, according to Autism Speaks Canada. In May 2013, the DSM-5 – dubbed the mental health bible for health care professionals – merged autism disorders into one umbrella diagnosis of ASD.

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People with autism are stereotyped as having special abilities, but this isn’t across the board. Some statistics suggest that about one in 200 people have special abilities while others peg it at 10 per cent.

READ MORE: Why you should care about changes to the DSM mental-health bible

Some kids, for example, could excel with exceptional memory, music, or computer skills. Others could have significant impairments with social relationships or communication.

Each diagnosis is unique so some people could depend on routine, get agitated by sensory stimulation or they need clear, unambiguous instructions, according to the U.K.’s NHS.

Misconception: Parenting, environmental factors trigger autism

Autism was first described by scientists in the 1940s. Years later, critics pointed a finger at cold parenting – “refrigerator mothers” who were distant and didn’t engage with their kids – as the culprit.

READ MORE: Autism may be linked to faulty prenatal brain growth, small study says

While researchers still don’t know what causes autism, they’re certain parenting isn’t a factor. They’re zeroing in on genes instead.

Studies have suggested that parents who have a first child with autism have higher chances of having a second child with autism compared to the general population.

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READ MORE: Autism, even in siblings, has different genetic causes, Canadian study suggests

Canadian scientists who studied siblings with autism and their parents found that even siblings can have different ‘forms’ of autism.

In this case, the siblings and their parents’ genetic code were examined. Mutations present like typos in the human DNA code. While siblings shared autism spectrum disorder and the same parents, the typos in their DNA that led to the neurodevelopmental condition weren’t the same.

READ MORE: Scientists find more genes possibly linked to autism with advanced sequencing tool

The researchers learned that in 70 per cent of the cases, different genes were involved in the siblings’ autism. With this information in hand, doctors are hopeful that patients will receive individualized treatment.

Misconception: Autism is a mental health disorder

Autism is a neurological disorder marked by abnormalities in the brain.

While people believe that those with autism lack empathy and can’t develop meaningful relationships, they can feel as much, if not more, than their peers, PBS notes.

Children with autism may find it difficult or aren’t sought out by others. They could have difficulty relating and building connections with their peers, Autism Canada says.

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Misconception: Vaccines cause autism

It’s been a tumultuous few years for parents and pediatricians: measles, mumps, whooping cough and chicken pox have all resurfaced in North America after they were virtually wiped out with the help of vaccines.

Infection disease experts suggest a steadily growing anti-vaccination movement is what’s causing this resurgence.

READ MORE: Measles, mumps, rubella vaccine isn’t linked to autism

In 1998, a study raised concerns about a possible link between the MMR – measles, mumps, rubella – vaccine and autism, setting off widespread panic around the world. The study had its flaws: it was based on only 12 children, and the researchers didn’t find a link between the MMR vaccine and behavioural problems. Ten of the 13 authors of the paper said they shouldn’t have published the paper.

READ MORE: 6 vaccination myths debunked

Ultimately, the journal that published the paper issued a formal retraction. It said that its decision to publish the article was the result of a “collective failure.” Subsequent large studies around the world haven’t found a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

“There is no scientific evidence to support the theory of a link. Because signs of autism may appear around the same age that children receive the MMR vaccine, some parents believe the vaccine causes the condition,” the Canadian Paediatric Society says on its website.

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But celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy and Alicia Silverstone, voiced their concerns about vaccines and their unsubstantiated link to autism.

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